When cultures coalesce

All about idiosyncrasies
Last Updated 16 January 2010, 13:08 IST

What happens when traditional anthropology is turned on its head? What happens when two extreme cultures come face to face with each other? And, what happens when five men from the remote tribal island of Tanna in the South Pacific, used to wearing nothing more than a ‘namba’ (penis covers made of grass), dress in trousers and jackets, visit extremely different societies in the UK and US to take a closer look at their working class? Well, firstly they feel uncomfortably hot with all those clothes and they also offer insightful critiques on modern society.

After years of anthropologists travelling to the south pacific and other remote habitations to live with local tribesmen and observe their traditional way of life, National Geographic has turned the tables around through the show Meet the Natives, which is being telecast on the channel on Friday nights at 9 pm. The first three episodes of Meet the Natives take place in UK and rest of the action unfolds in US.

This eight part series has tribesmen from the south pacific island of Tanna - one of the most southerly islands of the nation of Vanuatu, travel 10,000 miles from their ‘Kastam’ village to observe the natives of two strange and exotic lands popularly known as England and America.

Chief Yapa, Joel, Posen, Albi and Jimmy Joseph (JJ) embark on an epic tour of the UK while chief Mangau, Kamua, Kuai, Sam and Namus go on a peace tour to the US.

In the first three episodes, Chief Yapa, the head of the community; Joel, the finest doctor of the community; Posen, an expert pig farmer; Albi, their greatest dancer and Jimmy Joseph, who is the narrator since he speaks English, take us to a strange land named England.

Chief Yapa’s instructions are clear to the others. He says, “Brothers, we have been chosen as ambassadors and we need to show respect. When we are there don’t take anything that is not yours. Don’t walk off by yourselves. Finally, if you see some nice girls, don’t touch them.”

The episodes make great viewing as they look at the west with a new perspective, which not only observes the dichotomies that exist in the two worlds (with refreshing humour), but also comments on the so-called “developed” countries and their cruel contrasts. All this is strikingly different as the tribesmen come from a village that decided back in the 1960s to retain their traditional way of life, rather than follow the increasingly westernised paths of others.

In one of the episodes, the ambassadors travel to Manchester for a taste of British urban life with a couple called Julie and Ray. Visiting their first British city, the islanders are saddened to see homeless people living on the streets while Julie’s dog Pippin is taken for a stylish haircut. “I think something is back to front with the English people. They care for their dogs but they don’t care for people,” they tell Julie.

 Accompanying her when she takes her dog for grooming at a dog saloon, they come across the strangest sight in England. Two women are spending all their time giving baths and haircuts to dogs. They feel it is “crazy” because “this is a cold country and dogs need their fur”.

Viewers witness how men, unfamiliar with the modern world, react to some of the more unique and idiosyncratic parts of these western cultures. From fox hunting with fake foxes to a night out at the local pub to farm practices such as artificially inseminating pigs. “If the sows are going to be made pregnant like this, how will they get satisfied,” asks Posen Iarpita Napu, an expert pig farmer.

Fresh out of the experience of washing a car, medicine man Joel Numapen react, “Now I see that a car is like a human being. They have to shower frequently and wash their bodies with custom medicine. Then, every so often you have to clean their insides.” According to Sudha Sadhanand, Vice President Programming of National Geographic Channel (India), “Meet the Natives provides a fresh look at modern society. The reason why tribesmen from the island of Tanna were selected, was because they still lead a life that is far removed from the modern world and yet take pride in their way of living,” she explains.

In the episodes yet to be aired on Indian television, these five Tanna ambassadors travel to meet the people of ‘middle America’ to experience how average Americans live. A visit to the pet store reveals a number of odd pets kept by Americans, such as rats. What the men find even more bizarre, is to see clothing for dogs.

In California, they live with a couple —Rand and Rosemary Sperry and their six children. Here, the men can wear minimal clothing, swim and smoke cigars in the sun. They feel it isn’t so different from being at home.

While travelling to Washington, the tribesmen are invited to meet former US Secretary of State General, Colin Powell. Finally, having completed their mission, the men return to Tanna and shed their shirts and ties for the comfort of their traditional ‘nambas’. Those interested in cross cultural interactions, this is something you cannot miss.

(Published 16 January 2010, 12:54 IST)

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